Talent Irrigation District officials say piping a mile of its open-air and leaky Talent Canal could save enough water to allow the district to stop taking water out of Ashland Creek near Oak Street.
Removing the Oak Street diversion and its fish ladder would allow the saved water to stay in Ashland Creek and eventually Bear Creek, improving water quality and helping wild salmon there survive, TID officials say. "I, personally, don't see a downside to it," TID Manager Jim Pendleton said.
It's a roughly $1 million project that, if completed, would become the first mile of an estimated 200 miles of canal that could be piped in the Upper Rogue River's Bear Creek and Little Butte Creek sub-basins under the so-called WISE project.
A cost-benefit study on the entire $300 million proposal will launch this month, thanks to a $250,000 state grant earned earlier this year.
The study follows a preliminary feasibility study that concludes replacing the inefficient 19th-century-style canals with pressurized pipes could save as much as 45,000 acre-feet of water during an average water year.
That's enough to fill Emigrant and Agate lakes annually. The extra water would be available for agricultural uses as well as to create higher stream flows that would improve water quality and fish habitat in the Bear Creek Basin, a major nursery for the Rogue River Basin's wild salmon and steelhead.
"The preliminary design work shows the water savings is there," says Steve Mason, a water-systems consultant working on WISE for the past decade. "The cost-benefit analysis shows the economics for doing this project is there."
The upcoming analysis will put dollar signs on water savings, determine whether on-demand water use by irrigators could improve crop output or allow some landowners to upgrade their crops. It will also seek to determine how much money TID, Medford Irrigation District and the Rogue River Valley Irrigation District would save in operation costs.
The analysis will look at the financial benefits of more wild salmon grown in the Bear Creek Basin because of more in-stream water. It will even quantify how higher projected water levels at Emigrant, Hyatt and Howard Prairie lakes would generate more money from fishing and boating use.
When completed, the results could provide leverage for the next step in WISE, which stands for Water for Irrigators, Streams and Economy.
WISE members will be asking state and federal officials for about $3 million needed for a feasibility study and environmental impact statement on the project, Mason said.
Another boost toward that effort came Wednesday when the last of a few dozen stakeholders signed a declaration of cooperation pledging their support for WISE.
The groups include local, state and federal agencies, conservation groups such as the Geos Institute and WaterWatch of Oregon, the Jackson County Farm Bureau, the Rogue FlyFishers Association, and businesses such as Harry & David.
"It shows the support across the community for this project," Mason says.
If WISE is seen as a long-term collage of projects, than the Oak Street diversion/Talent Canal potential project is one early snapshot.
Part of that open-air canal would be replaced by pipes as large as 60 inches in diameter. That would curb enough leaking and evaporation to make up for the water now diverted at Oak Street.
"We'd essentially be trading that diverted amount for piping the canal," Pendleton said.
The diversion infrastructure and fish ladder could then be removed, allowing for natural passage of wild salmon and steelhead into Ashland city limits.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation is doing a study on the proposed project, and work could commence as early as 2014, Pendleton said.
While WISE projects likely would start no earlier than 2016, this project could provide a glimpse of what's to come should WISE come to fruition.
"Consider this a pilot project," Pendleton said. "If it works out, this would be a great stepping stone."
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or by email at email@example.com.